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The Cult of Beauty Review

June 25, 2012

The Cult of Beauty:
The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900
Legion of Honor
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
34th Ave & Clement St.
San Francisco, California
18 February—17 June, 2012

While Vie des Arts generally concerns itself with issues about contemporary art it is important occasionally to look at art that form the foundations of modern art. This exhibition that takes a critical look at the British Aesthetic Movement is a case in point. Although it might seem strange to us to mix the words Victorian and avant-garde into an art movement it was, in fact, very much the case in the last half of the 19th century in Britain where some of the artists who were at the core of the Aesthetic Movement were met with outright hostility by the important critics of the day. Witness the remark by the famous art critic John Ruskin on the paintings of James McNeill Whistler: “ I have seen and heard much cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public face.” The two guinea painting in question The Falling Rocket is now worth millions—so much for critics and criticism.

The important point that is well illustrated by works in The Cult of Beauty exhibition is that the Aesthetic Movement was able to combine the traditional fine or high arts, painting, sculpture, architecture with the crafts, furniture, interior design, jewellery and fashion. The movement was one of the bases for the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau. The artists in the Aesthetic Movement were of the opinion that art’s purpose is to be beautiful on its own on formal terms; art for art’s sake—L’art pour l’art. This was in opposition to the existing Victorian ideal for art as a moral educator. Nor were the sensual qualities of much of the movement’s products appreciated by a society that put skirts on table legs to protect modesty. The outrage that surrounded Whistler’s breathtakingly beautiful painting Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl, 1862, which is central to this exhibition, was the fact that the teenage girl in the painting was the artist’s mistress rather than its modernism and the fact that it was shown in the famous Paris Salon des Refusés in 1863.

The British Aesthetic Movement is more about a social revolution than an artistic style. Its art varied widely from Neo-Romantic to Decadence, but what the movement had in common is distaste for Victorian orthodoxies. Whistler is book-ended in the movement by Aubrey Beardsley. In the roughly forty years that span the movement Britain was going through a social revolution. Western Europe was being transformed by the Industrial Revolution craftsmen were being replaced by factory workers and people were moving to the cities. The response of artists of the Aesthetic Movement was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts Movement. While the artists might be considered reactionary in regard to the machine age they were revolutionary in their disregard for social norms. Theirs was the bohemianism of Oscar Wilde and the decadence of Aubrey Beardsley.
It was the stuff other than painting, sculpture and lurid prose where the Aesthetic Movement was to have its biggest influence on the British public such as the wallpaper designs of William Morris, the cloth designs of Liberty’s of London, the home furnishing of Thomas Jeckyell and the architecture of Philip Webb. There are examples of all of these peoples’ work, among others, that is evident in the exhibition. A central idea of the movement was unity in all things or as William Morris stated in 1880: “ If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” In a nutshell all things that surround us should be both beautiful and useful.

It is unfortunate that San Francisco was the only venue for the The Cult of Beauty. The exhibition was also seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and Paris’ Musée d’Orsay who along with the Legion of Honor organized the exhibition. However, the Victoria and Albert did publish an excellent catalogue edited by Lynn Federle Orr and Stephen Calloway that accompanied the show that is well worth reading in lieu of actually seeing the exhibition. It is important that we sometimes look at a different route in the development of Modernism to have a better understanding of where art is today. The Aesthetic Movement was one of those routes and their products, if nothing else, were beautiful. That aside, just to have a chance to see James McNeill Whistler’s, painting from the Tate Gallery, Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander (1872-74) was well worth the price of admission.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 21 May 2012.

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